As an important port city on the Black Sea, 19th century Odessa became among the most open and diverse cities of the Czarist Empire. Since it was within the Pale of Settlement, Jews were free to join in the city's economic and cultural dynamism, and they thrived, rising to prominence in trade, banking and industry. By the century's end, Odessa's 140,000 Jews were the second largest Russian-ruled community.
However, the freedoms Jews enjoyed did not preclude repeated pogroms, and ongoing tension made Odessa fertile ground for Jews seeking full emancipation. The Haskala (Jewish enlightenment movement) and Zionism both flourished there alongside religious life. Writers Mendele Mokher Seforim, Bialik, Ahad Ha-Am, and Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky are among the many who drew inspiration from the city's rich intellectual environment.
Sadly, Odessa's Jewish life was largely smothered by Soviet rule, and ultimately, the remaining vestiges of Jewish culture were all but destroyed by Nazi occupation. While many Jews fled from the Nazis, most who remained perished in camps and ghettos. After the war, survivors returned to Odessa to rebuild their shattered lives under Communist rule—without religion and without community.